Assembly elections: Punjab

Change on the cards

Print edition : February 17, 2017

AAP national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal introducing Jarnail Singh, AAP candidate, at an election rally in Lambi on January 20. Photo: PTI

Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal (centre) of the SAD releasing the party's manifesto on January 24. Photo: PTI

The Aam Aadmi Party appears to have an edge over its rivals in Punjab although voters in the three regions are divided between the Congress and the new party, clearly rejecting the SAD-BJP alliance.

IS the Punjabi penchant for experimentation coupled with deep-rooted feelings of anger and disappointment towards the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) government driving a substantially large number of voters to make a clear choice in favour of one party to ensure its victory and prevent a fragmented electoral mandate? This question assumed increasing relevance as the campaign for the February 4 Assembly elections entered its final phase, with prominent leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, addressing large public rallies. The electoral outcome, which is to be announced on March 11, will depend largely on the extent to which this apparent inclination of a substantially large number of Punjabi voters crystallises into a firm decision.

As this correspondent travelled across vast swathes of Punjab’s three regions—Malwa, Majha and Doaba —during the second fortnight of January, the public resentment against the SAD-BJP governance was hard to miss. Interestingly, a good number of people interviewed mentioned satisfactory government performance with regard to delivering public infrastructure. However, they are resentful about the apparent impunity of those close to the government, widespread corruption, joblessness, agricultural crisis and drug abuse. The opposition parties, essentially the AAP and the Congress, have successfully tapped into this widespread resentment.

In the politically crucial Malwa region, which has 69 of the 117 Assembly seats and half of Punjab’s 22 districts, public sentiment is mostly inclined towards the AAP. It is acknowledged in Punjab that whoever wins Malwa forms the government. The region is witnessing most of the key electoral contests and, therefore, close media attention.

While those sympathetic to the Congress often bring up the example of the 2012 Assembly elections in which Manpreet Badal, Finance Minister in the previous SAD-BJP government who rebelled and contested with an independent front, cut into the Congress vote share thereby ensuring the return to power of the present dispensation, a spirited campaign by the AAP about a supposed deal between the Congress and the ruling dispensation has had some effect on public perception.

Former Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s decision to contest against Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal in Lambi, which is in the Malwa region’s Muktsar district, has heated up the campaign, but the wind is definitively not blowing in the Congress’ favour.

Mohan Singh, a small farmer from Kheowali village in Lambi, was perhaps echoing the majority perception in Malwa when he told Frontline: “We are considering voting for the jhaadu [broom, the AAP’s election symbol] this time. We voted for Badal saab thrice, but we are thinking about giving the new option a chance. Even if the AAP does not do anything to benefit us, at least it will not do anything as adverse as these two have done.” He meant the SAD-BJP and the Congress, which have ruled the State since its formation in 1966. Similar feelings were evident in Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s Jalalabad constituency. Prince Gandhi, a grocery store owner, said: “Our entire village has taken to the jhaadu. We won’t vote for Sukhbir this time.”

It is not easy to predict the winners in Lambi and Jalalabad as the Congress has mounted forceful campaigns. Ravneet Singh, Congress Member of Parliament and grandson of the late Chief Minister Beant Singh, is a formidable candidate in Jalalabad. However, it is a fact illustrative of Punjab’s election scene that the Badals, who ruled Punjab with a strong hand for a decade, are facing a difficult electoral battle thanks in no small measure to the intense campaign launched by the AAP by fielding candidates with wide appeal. The AAP’s campaign committee chief, Bhagwant Mann, is contesting from Jalalabad and the former journalist Jarnail Singh from the high-profile Lambi. (Jarnail Singh, who was a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Delhi, hit the headlines for hurling a shoe at former Home Minister P. Chidambaram in protest against the clean chit given by the Central Bureau of Investigation to the Congress leader Jagdish Tytler in the 1984 riots case.) Similar contests in Malwa, which sent four AAP candidates to the Lok Sabha in 2014, appear to have tilted the scales sharply towards the AAP, although the Congress has launched a strong campaign in Patiala, Bathinda (Urban) and other districts of the region.

Northern Punjab’s Majha region has 25 seats. It is considered to be the base of conservative and religious-minded voters. The Jat Sikh farmers of Malwa and the conservative voters of Majha are believed to form the traditional Akali vote base. However, political observers and public sentiment point to a different voter preference this time around. In Majha, traditional Akali voters may consider voting for the Congress in view of Amarinder Singh’s popularity and the relatively week position of the AAP there. Both the AAP and the Congress have disputed this view by saying that they are seeking and expect to get “two-thirds” or “sweeping” mandates.

According to Professor Jagrup Singh Sekhon, head of the Political Science Department in the Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University, the region-wise split is on the following lines: Malwa is by and large with the AAP, Majha with the Congress, and the Doaba region, with 23 seats, does not seem to be going definitely with any one party. “If elections had been held six months ago, the AAP would have repeated Delhi’s performance. However, the Congress’ campaign has also picked up now so the AAP is no longer an undisputed challenger to the SAD-BJP alliance. Even so, the AAP retains the edge,” he explained.

What Jaspreet Singh, owner of a pagri (turban) shop outside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, had to say is perhaps indicative of the reason for the uptick in the Congress’ fortunes in Majha. “Until a few months ago, I was supporting Kejriwal. But when I saw the candidates fielded by his party in Amritsar, I was disappointed. Captain has given us better option to vote for. The Badals must go,” he said. Among the key reasons for Jaspreet’s dismay is the Badal government’s inability to nab the culprits who desecrated the Guru Granth Sahib. “Any self-respecting Sikh will not vote for the Akalis in this election,” he said. Kishan Saini, a Gurdaspur resident, said, “Jhaduwale [AAP] are not to be seen in my constituency and my family has been long-time Congress voters.”

In Doaba, the combination of Dalit populations and families of non-resident Indians has created an interesting fight between the Congress and the AAP. Both parties have reached out to the two voting segments—Punjab has a large, politically and economically influential, diaspora and India’s largest Dalit population at nearly 32 per cent. The response of these sectors is keenly watched. The AAP’s decision to reserve the Deputy Chief Minister’s post for a person from the Dalit community has been noted, just as its high-visibility outreach to the Punjabi diaspora, whose members have returned home to campaign in the elections. The Congress also claims it will do well, thanks to its efforts to reach out to the two segments.

While travelling in Jalandhar and Nawanshahar in the Doaba region, this correspondent could sense, in several constituencies, the mood in favour of giving the new entrant a chance. “We have tried the Congress and the Akalis before. I feel we should give a chance to Kejriwal now,” said Vir Singh Kashyap from Baharmajara village in Banga constituency in Nawanshahar district.

Youth as constituency

While much is made of region and caste while assessing voting decisions, it appears that not many realise the influence of one of the most relevant voting constituencies: the youth. Fifty-three per cent of Punjab’s 1.04-crore-strong electorate is in the 18-39 age group. These voters will most likely have a definite impact on the verdict. Politicians from all parties have sought to woo this “aspirational” voting segment in myriad ways. The Congress, through its offer of giving smartphones with free data, has sought to tap into this voting segment. The Akali Dal talks of free Wi-Fi facility in the rural areas.

Voting preferences may not be uniform on all issues in this segment, but when it comes to jobs, context-specific divisions collapse. Consider the example of the landed Jat Sikh farmer community, which is no longer expected to vote en masse for the Akalis. In this segment, the youth appear to have been attracted by the AAP.

Professor Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University says: “Youth have emerged as a voting segment of their own in recent years. Especially since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, youths from the Jat Sikh farming community, which otherwise backed the Akalis, have looked towards the AAP with hope.” Evidence of this could be found in Sukhbir Badal’s constituency. When this correspondent spoke to young voters who had come out to witness Bhagwant Mann’s public meetings, especially those not directly a part of the politically savvy Akali Dal local unit, they expressed keen interest in the AAP.

Baldev Singh of Chakkh Khiva village in Jalalabad is a small farmer. He feels the AAP should be given a chance. “The Akalis have done some good things. The Atta Dal scheme and free power for water pumps in farms are very good. But we don’t have decent, well-paying jobs. I have voted for the Akalis before. But now many of us are considering jhaadu this time,” he said. If the 2012 and 2014 elections are any indicators, Punjab can throw up surprises. What remains to be seen is whether the electorate will deliver a definite break from the past.

Issues in focus

The campaign for the elections has been anything but typical and so are the issues in focus.

Being a contestant with a more or less clean slate, the AAP cashed in on the first mover’s advantage and found itself setting the agenda for much of 2016 by effectively raking up the issues of drug addiction among youths and perceived political involvement in the drug trade, widespread corruption, alleged nepotism of Parkash Singh Badal’s family, farmer suicides and indebtedness, and poor governance.

The Congress, which came late into the campaign, mounted a fairly effective campaign surrounding the indebtedness of farmers and the demand for remunerative prices for crop produce with the slogan “ karza kurki khatam, fasal di poori rakam” (end of loan, mortgage; full remuneration for crop).

These campaigns tapped into the widely prevalent anti-incumbency sentiment in various sections of society and received a strong response.

Issues relating to drugs appeared to have found special resonance among people when the AAP produced documents from the Enforcement Directorate in early 2016 to accuse Bikram Singh Majithia, Cabinet Minister in the Badal government and brother-in-law of Sukhbir Badal, of having links with drug peddlers. A similar charge was hurled at Majithia during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But in 2016, what was until then a matter of political campaign became a widely discussed social issue beyond the State when the Central Board of Film Certification objected to political references relating to the drug trade in the Hindi film Udta Punjab, and a controversy erupted.

Sukhbir Badal accused the opposition of “defaming” Punjab and its youth by portraying them as drug addicts. Questions were raised about the actual extent of drug addiction in society. Sukbhir Badal stated that it was below the national average and the opposition parties disputed his claim. Seeking to keep the momentum on the issue alive, Kejriwal announced during one of his rallies that he would put Majithia behind bars by April 15. Apart from drugs, issues linked directly to agriculture came up during the course of the campaign in diverse ways.

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